Training: 3 drills to hone your handgun skills – basic edition

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The author performs the case drill, one of several essential handgun drills every pistol shooter should know and practice. (Photo: Team HB)

Here are three drills I use with myself and with students to test and confirm that fundamental skills, especially trigger press, are in place. They’re also a great way to evaluate a trigger and sight picture vs. point of impact on an unfamiliar handgun.

1. Case drill

Larry Vickers started an advanced pistol class with this drill. It’s been a wonderful tool for me to use with shooters, especially new ones, who think pressing the trigger is an event. This drill allows you to feel that pressing the trigger is nothing more than another step in the firing sequence.

The case drill is easiest when done with a friend who can re-set the empty cartridge case. It’s a little slower practiced alone. It’s done with an empty firearm, so remove the magazine and double-check that the chamber is clear before closing the slide. If you’re practicing off-range, remove ammunition from the immediate area, like putting it in another room.

Hold the gun in firing position on target. Have a friend balance the empty case of a fired cartridge on your front sight—or atop the slide just behind the front sight if the sight is slanted.  Press the trigger to “click,” keeping the case in place. Reset the slide.  Repeat until you get at least five full trigger presses in a row while keeping the case balanced.

This dry-fire exercise makes shooters better without eating up ammunition.  And it can be practiced at times when you can’t get to the range.

2. Five-shot drill

Start at a distance of three yards for beginners, or five yards for more accomplished shooters. Fire five consecutive shots, slowly and deliberately, without checking where each one hits.  Success is measured by progressively smaller groups, working toward one ragged hole in the target.  Increase distance to seven yards when three or five come easily.

This drill is especially telling for the most common error, jerking rather than pressing the trigger.  The target will generally show low and left grouping for right handed shooters, or low right groups for left-handers who anticipate the shot. Shots landing centered and low indicate spastic finger action on the trigger sans anticipatory dread on the shooter’s part.

3. Plate drill

A 99-cent pack of paper plates can last for months with this practical drill.  Staple a paper plate, preferably an eight-inch one but a ten-inch plate works too, to your area.  Draw, or move from a low ready position, and fire two rounds onto the plate, as quickly as you can do so safely.

To make this exercise really grow your shooting skills, confirm that you see the front sight on the plate for each trigger press.  Looking at the plate will work at close distances, but as you move back beyond about five yards, it is necessary to establish a sight picture.

This drill is almost endlessly adaptable for different skill levels.  Add distance and/or speed to challenge yourself once it’s easy to deliver two rapid rounds that are on the plate at five yards.  This exercise can be done with a shot timer as a way to gain insight about your draw-fire speed from various distances and carry positions.

Use of the shot timer, combined with increasing distances on the plate drill, allows to identify the current “envelope” within you can be confident that rounds will land as desired, and in what amount of time.  Future practice sessions should start well within that envelope and then gradually push its boundaries in order to add challenge as well as increase your skill.

A Sharpie is a helpful tool on this one. Marking any holes that are off the plate will make things less confusing when after many rounds are fired. If you’re not missing at all after a while, you’re not testing your boundaries enough.  Get out of your comfort zone from time to time!

If the reason you own a handgun is self-protection, this enjoyable exercise can help you make an informed, responsible decision about taking a difficult shot in a real situation.

Frequency of practice

Shooting is a perishable skill.  Don’t expect consistency from dusting off the gun once every six months and heading to the range to fire a 50-round box of ammo. The exercises here can help you maintain competence and make the most of limited time and ammunition.  They work for me.